Dali Benssalah’s last major movie release was in Daniel Craig’s latest James Bond release There is no time to die as the assassin Prime, aka Cyclops. It doesn’t take long for Netflix’s intense new thriller Athena to show he was completely wasted in the minor role of Bond.
Romain Gavras’ third film centers on a trio of siblings whose lives change when their 13-year-old brother is killed following an alleged altercation with the police. With Karim (Sami Slimane) looking for revenge and Moktar (Ouassini Embarek) only trying to protect his drug-dealing business, Abdel (Benssalah) must quell the mounting tensions.
However, there is only so much Abdel can do when Karim decides to turn their Athena community into a fortress. It’s an attempt to force the police to knock out the people who killed the brother, but it only ends up setting the scene for an inevitable tragedy.
Abdel initially seems the most balanced and mature of the brothers, having been recalled from the front line after his brother’s death. That’s what both his community and the police are turning to to control Karim and bring things to a peaceful – or as peaceful as possible, solution.
But thanks to the layered performance of Dali Benssalah, Abdel becomes Athenathe most unpredictable character. It’s a gripping twist that does a lot with a little, as the film’s relentless pace means character development plays a minor role compared to engaging scenes.
Gavras really throws the audience into the siege of Athena, combining long shots and close-up shots for a visceral experience. It’s a grueling watch at times, but Gavras is careful to mix in the quieter times and firing wide shots to make sure you never get lost in the fray.
There are images here that are hard to shake, like a character carrying a still-smoking corpse. If the story is light, Athena it makes up for it with its graphics and performance, punching a subtle character pacing rather than exposure.
Benssalah stars, but newcomer Sami Slimane is a revelation like livewire Karim, willing to risk everything for what he believes is true justice. You are aware that things probably won’t turn out well for everyone, yet Slimane’s sincere performance makes you wish it could happen.
As things escalate and escalate over the course of a night (which takes place almost in real time), Gavras pushes the tension to breaking point. The moment it stops is one of the most impactful sequences of the year, not that Gavras leaves you easily with an equally compelling ending.
Few other films this year, if any, have proven to be so engaging and pulsating Athena. Just remember to breathe once you have experienced it.
Athena is now available for viewing on Netflix.